Updated: Jul 3, 2020
Let's set the tone. I attended a Yoga Alliance Workshop recently to learn more about the reality of #BlackLivesMatter in the context of yoga. Here are a few quotes from that session as well as numerous other much needed conversations I have seeked out.
"I have learned to brush it off, all the things that make me feel not welcome."
"I think it was normal that black yoga teachers don't exist."
"Even black people have different backgrounds. Black means a lot of different things."
"1000 black teachers started YTT yesterday because it was "pay what you can."
"Nobody would ever touch me. So I thought, Oh must be because I look like I know what I was doing. Later I realized that that wasn't the case but that there was an ever-present bias in these spaces."
"have hair products in your bathrooms for ALL people"
"Different body types need different cues (many body types cannot make sure their lower back is touching the ground while laying on their backs). Please consider what you say in your cues."
Can we listen, can we learn, can we augment ... Yes. We. Can.
The impression of “Yoga” in general:
More often than not, practicing yoga, in the western world, comes with an impression that one needs a yoga studio, yoga clothing, and a pre-existing subscription to some soul deep spirituality. Yoga, while having 8 limbs, is associated solely with one of them … Asanas (those physical postures we are familiar with and photos of which are ubiquitous on Instagram). People use “yoga” when they mean “Asana” and even yoga teachers, knowing this, do not alter their vernacular to correct this. Yoga is still incorrectly marketed & presented (we will get into that). For the purposes of this write up, I’m using “Yoga” to refer to “Wellness” in general.
Photo of Chioko Grevious. A link to her story is at the end of this blog.
Yoga Retreats, Teacher/Studio Followings, Sanghas:
Many yoga teachers, after creating a brand and following of their own, start offering retreats & workshops. Many of the time, people from their own sangha (network, community, following) go to these offerings. It's of course cheaper and more easy to market to a group of people whose attention you already have and who frequent your offerings. So people in the community opt to go to a retreat with "their teacher" of course partially because of familiarity/safety .... so that it is not as intimidating. Doesn’t that make sense? Going to a transformational experience (which may inherently be difficult) … but doing that with a group of people you feel a belonging with? Imagine if you don’t feel like you fit or belong to a group of people … would you feel safe exposing your inner demons for “spiritual growth” as easily? It is important to understand that subtleties in marketing (just the "wrong" photo or word) can make someone feel like they don't belong. This is part of the listening we all need to do. It's not really about creating the most "attractive" poster ... it's about creating the most relatable and resonating poster.
Well, let’s look around. How many black/brown/indigenous yoga teachers are around you right now with a following? How many own studios? How is a black yoga teacher to create this sangha if … segue ...
The Black/Brown/Minority Yoga Entrepreneur & lack of Opportunity:
Sadly, one of the things I’m hearing and learning is that black entrepreneurs do not get loans as easily from banks. I’m talking about black entrepreneurs with the exact same socio-economic “status” as a white counterpart. If this is true, how is a black yoga teacher supposed to dive full-time into this profession (which is what would be required if they have to make a living with it and truly make a positive dent in wellness)? How are they supposed to gather enough momentum if they are stifled right from the start?
The goal here is equal opportunity. How can we create and offer the same opportunities? I know money can help, but there also may be other ways to circumvent money (example, current studio owners possibly offering their spaces for free or subsidized).
Yoga Retreats in “Paradise”:
This one is huge. What’s up with Yoga retreats having this overall impression? I googled “yoga retreat” and this is one of the first photos that popped up. I invite you to do this right now and see what your local google algorithm offers. I’d love to see all of us in do this actually and share the photo so we can observe.
Why is the general impression that one has to be affluent enough to fly to Mexico, or Bali, or Australia or some exotic place … in order to allow happiness and wellness into their lives? Is wellness only for jet setting "global citizens"? Why are these labelled as “escapes”? Why are there not more retreats offered in our backyards? Wouldn’t that actually have less overheads, a lower ticket/admission price and overall simply make more sense …. if healing and wellness is the goal here? It even makes corporate positive P&L sense! More accessible, more affordable, more people, more healing, more momentum!
I’m guilty of this and will make change. Stephanie and I are going to offer retreats in our backyard in Ontario … and we are going to work hard at making sure it’s affordable and also profitable. We are also going to take a page from what we have learned from The Kula Collective (https://www.thekulacollective.com/) and incorporate our rich local indigenous teachings in our offerings.
“It's too intimidating”:
I have heard this the most. All the things you learn by just seeking conversations and asking and listening. Healing is intimidating? Wellness is intimidating? That sounds weird. No ... actually that's not what they meant. What they meant is more about this photo here. This photo is not inviting. It is intimidating. Doing this posture ... is not the goal. We all know this. And by posting photos like this, we teachers are show-casing a possibly dangerous target.
Yoga (wellness) cannot, must not be elite in the material superficial sense. It’s just not the message we need to send out right now. We live in a paradigm where it seems like everything is judged based on what the surface says (look at racism as an example). If a woman is thin, she is “healthy” … regardless of how unhappy she may be. If a man is heavy, he must not love himself. If a couple is black, "they’re probably not into acro-yoga" (I’ve literally heard this come out of a "yoga teacher"’s mouth).
“Wellness” vs. “Yoga” terminology:
This one is really interesting. I believe that all us teachers actually just wish healing and wellness for their students. I believe that’s the goal of any retreat … to find healing, self love, wellness and a more healthy approach to life post retreat. Well … one thing we have been doing incorrectly then, is focusing too hard on the presentation (in our marketing) of the asanas, chanting, Incense, deep esoteric language that is mostly actually spiritual jargon. Well, maybe, just maybe not all cultural demographics relate healing to a slim fit yogi sitting on a bolster facing a sunrise. While ALL people and demographics need healing and wellness, not all of them relate it to chanting or “chakras” or an expectation that looking into anothers' eyes during workshops should just be something we need to "push through". It is this type of “spiritual” bypassing & presentation that does not make this relatable to more people than it could. This does Not mean that retreats should not offer asana practice or chanting or push boundaries … what it means is that the industry has been making this healing and transformation relatable to a very small and narrow % of the population … those who A) are already on the spiritual path and have vernacular around that, B) have the luxury to take time off, travel, etc., C) feel that they physically and superficially “fit in”.
Also ... can we start calling Asana class what it is vs. “Yoga class”? Can studios who claim to be “yoga studios” offer as equal emphasis on the other 7 limbs we all learn about in teacher training (and more importantly, in life)? Aren’t they all just as significant to inner healing and growth? Isn’t that a huge responsibility we have as yoga teachers to speak accurately about it? Look at this graphic. To think that only "posture" will give me yog (union, oneness, harmony). Why are we doing this? Why isn't there a single "yoga studio" around me that offers a separate workshop on ALL of these limbs? I see schedules full of this flow or that flow, all kinds of various physical modalities like Ashtanga or ______tanga and it's all physical. Is it because we teachers cannot actually teach what Samadhi means? Can we actually articulate the difference between Niyama and Yama and do we go into that when we do our talks? Try it right now and see if it's easier for you to explain Niyama vs. Yama or show me how to do crow pose. I mean it's okay if we don't emphasize on all these limbs ... but then let's not call it "Yoga". The point is ... the industry is inaccurate in its marketing and presentation, and of course this has had adverse effects as it's now all about the posture (and right now the average black person is probably not thinking about how shredded their standing splits can be). I know we talk about this stuff ... but I don't see anybody spending time of any of these other limbs equally.
I know there is a lot of spiritual terminology here. & that contradicts an earlier point I made. Well, all that means is that we say "mindful breathing" instead of "Pranayama". We talk about "letting go" vs. "Dhyana". Let's use language that is relatable and attainable. Wellness is not an "escape". It is our basic human right and as yoga teachers it is our dharma to make this as accessible as possible.
Possible solutions & resources:
First of all … I don’t know. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I know the answers. These are just some thoughts and ideas for us to discuss. In fact, let’s all start with “I don’t know”. This way, the egos are outside this room :) So .... I don’t know.
Can studios and spaces offer facilities subsidized for minority teachers so that they may be able to grow a following? Can all retreat facilitators make an equal effort to offer their teachings in their own city as well as a more expensive offering in an exotic far away location? Can there be a crowd funding effort to raise funds for entrepreneurs wanting to opening their own studios? Shall we create a larger database/website of resources for minorities who are getting going? I don’t know. As for me, this is a start … I offer corporate consultation for businesses and moving forward, I volunteer my time to help soldiers of love brainstorm, create, promote, build structures within their organization, etc. Many in the yoga industry need business help I find and I'm here to offer that.
Not all is gloomy. There are incredible initiatives already doing great work. I do not propose re-inventing any wheel that’s already rolling. I’d rather support the aligned movements and create more awareness for them and support their growth and evolution.
The New Leaf Foundation (https://newleaffoundation.com/). I am so proud that this is a Canadian initiative. They are innovators and are working hard to bring change to the front lines. “Yoga studios” like Spirit Loft (https://www.spiritloft.com/) support New Leaf Foundation. Notice that I put “yoga studio” in quotes. This is because Spirit Loft is known and branded as a “Movement Centre”. They offer diversity in their approach to sharing healing. This inherently makes this space more welcoming to all kinds of modalities and demographics. I am not blasted with a huge Ome symbol when I walk in.
Meet Youmie Francis. She founded Flex-N-Fly (https://flexnfly.com/). Listen to her share her story & struggles a black woman entrepreneur teaching yoga: https://www.yogiapproved.com/life/youmie-francois-wellness-talk/
Meet Dee Leborgne (https://www.deeleborgne.com/). This beautiful soul sister’s story is heartfelt. She is French and has her share of experiences with racism in Europe. She wanted to do ballet. How difficult do you think that experience was for her? Imagine being the only black girl in a room full of white ballet students. Please support her offerings as she brings such incredible healings.
Meet Kia Player. She founded Curated Culture Travel (https://www.curatedculturetravel.com/). She, along with Dee Leborgne created and offer Oshun Retreats. Pay attention to the language they use. It’s not about “Yoga” … it’s about a transformational experience. It’s about travel. It’s about a journey.
Meet Karma Cloud. She founded So Wisdom (https://sowisdom.com/). Check her out and what she offers and how. Karma, Dee and Kia are offering an online experience called “Becoming an Agent for Social Change” on July 5, 2020. Please share & support if you are able to https://www.facebook.com/events/722683011607682/
Please read this heartfelt letter by Chioko (http://yogadork.com/2015/05/21/the-struggle-of-the-black-yogi/) who shares her story as a black woman trying to allow yoga in her life.
Some incredible spaces: